April 20, 2018

Transit in Two Cities: A Comparison of Seattle and Vancouver

Last month the Seattle Times sent reporter David Gutman up to Vancouver for a story on the similarities and differences in transportation between the two cities – an unusual commitment in this day of constrained resources.  He talked to a lot of people (including Price Tags) and here is a much-abridged version of what he found. (Full story here.)

With three fully-built light-rail lines and an interconnected bus network, Vancouver’s transportation system is like Seattle’s, just a couple of decades in the future. But the Canadian city differs in its rock-solid commitment to building housing right on top of transit.
Metro Vancouver — which comprises Vancouver and 23 surrounding cities and towns — is a region being built, more and more, around its thriving and ever-expanding light-rail system. …
South Lake Union, home of Amazon and the epicenter of Seattle’s construction boom, currently has 15 major projects under construction, about evenly split between apartments and office space.
South Lake Unions are sprouting up at SkyTrain stops all over Metro Vancouver. …
“There’s different attitudes about density than in Seattle, that’s for sure,” said Kevin Desmond, CEO of TransLink, the agency in charge of transit and roads in Metro Vancouver. “But if you’re going to manage congestion, which is getting worse and worse in Seattle, you’ve got to get people nearer to transit.”  …
Throughout the region, 146 developments are being built close enough to a SkyTrain station or track that they need special permission from the rail agency.
In 2012, there were only two such developments. …

A city built around transit
There are a lot of similarities between the two cities.
Both are surrounded by water and mountains, with populations around 700,000 and metro-region populations closer to 3 million. Both cities are becoming increasingly unaffordable, with sky-high housing prices.
Both have turned major downtown streets into and are getting ready to tear down viaducts that cut through downtown. Both are looking at systemwide road
And both are planning for an influx of about 1 million new residents over the next three decades, trying to build the infrastructure to house and move booming populations.
But it’s two votes, both 50 years ago, that still define the two cities’ transportation systems.
In 1967, Vancouver’s City Council voted against building a highway through its historic Chinatown and Gastown neighborhoods. It is the only major North American city without a downtown highway.
A year later, 51 percent of Seattle voters chose to build a regional light-rail system. But the measure needed 60 percent, and the defeat set light rail back by 30 years.  …
Seattle is the 10th most-congested city in North America, according to in-car navigation system data collected by INRIX, with drivers spending 55 hours a year in delays.
Vancouver does much better: It’s the 39th most-congested city, with drivers delayed for 29 hours a year.
“Pre-World War II cities work well because they were built around transit,” said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transit consultant. “Vancouver is the only North American city built around transit in the second half of the 20th century.” …
In separate interviews, three Vancouver transportation officials from three different organizations all repeated the same phrase, word for word, unprompted:
“The best transportation plan is a good land-use plan.”
“This is an absolute mantra of TransLink,” Akester added.
The mantra boils down to: What’s the point of spending billions on a transit system if people can’t live near it?

Heavy bus use

For anyone who relies on Seattle buses, or even more established but flailing subway systems in other American cities, SkyTrain is, well, different.
Its three lines cover 50 miles of track and have no drivers, the biggest fully automated train system in the world.
Seattle’s light-rail trains come every six minutes during rush hour, and every 10 to 15 minutes otherwise. They can’t touch SkyTrain. …
During peak hours, trains come every 100 seconds. During off-peak hours they come every three minutes. Even at the ends of the Canada and Expo lines, when the track branches in two to reach more suburban communities, a train is never more than six minutes away. …
But even with a built-out rail system, buses in Vancouver still carry nearly 65 percent more people than SkyTrain.
The 99 B-Line, which serves the University of British Columbia, is the most-used bus line in North America outside of Mexico City. It has 56,000 daily passengers.
At any given stop on the route, more than 250 B-Line buses arrive every weekday. …
The next SkyTrain line, currently in very early stages of development, will replace the bus route.
Seattle’s busiest bus line, the RapidRide E, carries just under 18,000 daily passengers up and down Aurora Avenue. Buses arrive at each stop about 115 times per day. 
Vancouver has 11 separate bus lines that carry more people than the E.
The interplay between buses and rail that’s in Seattle’s transit future — a “spine” of light rail supported by “ribs” of bus routes — is firmly in place in Vancouver. …
“There’s always been this recognition that frequent bus service is core to the system,” said Brian Mills, an independent transportation consultant and former planning director for TransLink.
“Read the headlines in most cities, there’s a lot of focus on the major rapid transit projects, they’re big, they’re capital intensive, they’re really important,” Mills said. “But what’s often missed is discussion of the frequent bus service, the sinew of the system.”
Seattle’s transit system is growing faster and attracting more new riders than any other system in America, but it pales in comparison to Vancouver’s.
On an average weekday, nearly twice as many people board a bus, train, ferry or van pool in Metro Vancouver than in the Seattle urban area, even though we’ve got a larger population.
“Our mental map is organized as much around SkyTrain lines as the freeway or two that we do have,” said Gord Price, the director of the City Program at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, and a former Vancouver city councilor. “The mental map of Seattle, it begins with freeways, I-5, I-405, the bridges.”
(Full story here.)

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    1. SkyTrain’s official name is “Advanced LRT,” though. It’s a pretty blurred line – one could argue that grade-separated light rail like the O-Train is actually light metro as well.

  1. Thanks for the post. More evidence that the Greater Vancouver transit system is under-rated by the people who live here.

  2. After a recent trip to a couple Canadian cities, I think this article gets something wrong. It’s not just Vancouver; it’s all Canadian cities that think differently about mass transit.

    For example, Vancouver is NOT the only North American city to not have a downtown freeway. Two other western cities, which are even low density by Canadian standards, don’t have downtown freeways either. Calgary and Edmonton. Nor does Winnipeg, and I’m sure other cities which I did not visit.

    I took the bus frequently in Edmonton, and was Surprised to find a city of around 1,000,000 had waaaay better bus service than Seattle, and the lrt was extensive and there were big plans. Also in Calgary, I took the lrt downtown every day and it blew away anything I’d seen here.

    Truly, Canadians just see mass transit as a non-negotiable part of the city while we see it as a service for the poor. I’d say y’all need to change your perception but even I avoid it when I’m not visiting Canada

  3. As a born vancouverite who has travelled extensively, lives mostly overseas now and is deeply in love with many cities, I can say honestly that every time i come back to vancouver i appreciate the hell out of the transit system. not just in metro vancouver but including BC ferries to which it is linked (one of the largest fleets in the world). You can go damn near anywhere in this largely wilderness province (larger than texas) without owning a car.
    Vancouver has many problems to overcome like most places but the transit system is epic

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